It’s a true story that reads like fiction – and it’s one that should raise the spirits of any aspiring author. Elise Parsley, a 27-year-old piano teacher in Plymouth, Minn., leapt from being an unpublished, agentless author-illustrator to one with both an agent and a book contract in three days.
The quick-fire timeline went like this: Parsley sent Steven Malk at Writers House an e-mail query on Tuesday, November 19; he signed her on as a client on Wednesday, and on Thursday submitted her picture book, If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don’t!, to multiple publishers. Connie Hsu at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers made a pre-empt offer on Friday, which Malk and Parsley accepted that evening. The book is scheduled for fall 2015 publication.
“It’s really crazy to think that a month ago, nobody knew who I was, and now several people do!” said Parsley. She explained that Alligator, the story of a spunky girl named Magnolia who sets off a domino effect of chaos when she brings an alligator to school for show-and-tell, is “my third story that I’ve tried to see through all the way to the end, but it’s the first one that has gotten really good feedback.”
The genesis of the picture book was a drawing Parsley did to “beef up” her portfolio before attending an SCBWI conference last year. “I always try to draw an image that makes me laugh, and then build a story around it,” she said. “This time, I drew Magnolia in her classroom, with her teacher standing over her with a scowl on her face and a paper airplane in her hair. The alligator Magnolia brought to school is tattling on her, saying that Magnolia did it. From there, I figured that I’d better have a reason for this alligator being in the classroom in the first place, and I wrote the whole story.”
Parsley credited her professors at Minnesota State University in Moorhead with helping her realize her dream of becoming a children’s book creator. “I took my first formal art classes in college, and my professors started from scratch with me, knowing that I wanted to do children’s books,” she said. “They really went out of their way to push me in terms of sequential and narrative work, and creating art that would speak to children. I owe a great deal to them.”
Though she did extensive research about the publishing business after graduating, and learned that signing with an agent was the route to take, it took Parsley a few years before she summoned the courage to contact Malk. When Alligator received positive feedback from editors at writing conferences last fall, she decided to take the plunge and sent him an e-mail. “I decided a long time ago that I wouldn’t query Steve, since he was way out of my league,” she said. “But after getting good feedback I thought maybe I’d have a teeny, tiny chance with him.”
‘Alligator’ Finds a Home
Turns out, her odds were far better than she’d thought. Malk was immediately taken by Parsley’s manner and personality. “I was very impressed by how professionally Elise presented herself, and she clearly had her head on straight,” he said. “When I talked to her on the phone, she was so sweet and gracious, and it was clear that she already knows that she wants to make picture books for the rest of her life. I knew on the spot that I wanted to represent her.”
Seeing Alligator sealed the deal for the agent. Malk, who called the book “at once very classic and at the same time very fresh, which is a magical sweet spot,” e-mailed the project to eight publishers, and began receiving responses within an hour. “People started making pre-emptive offers,” he said. “I knew I wanted to find the best home for this new author who is so promising, with an editor who will nurture and support her.” Malk decided that editor was Hsu, whose reaction to the book, he said, “was so swift and so enthusiastic. Connie got the book 100 percent, and her colleagues did as well.” When she received the project from the agent, Hsu was so impressed that she immediately wanted to share it with others in-house. “I assumed the book was created by someone who has studied and illustrated picture books for years,” she said. “It was the perfect formula of hilarity, heart, and expressive art. I thought, ‘We have to have this, and we have to move fast and take this off the table.’ Luckily, the LBYR team also saw Elise’s magic. Immediately, they began calling and e-mailing me with enthusiastic support for putting together a pre-emptive offer for Elise’s books.”
When Malk phoned Parsley to tell her about the three-book offer Hsu had made, she happened to be at a critique meeting with some fellow writers at her local Barnes & Noble. “We were just celebrating the fact that I had an agent, and the phone rang,” she said. “I said to my friends, ‘I don’t want to be a snob, but this is actually my agent calling,’ and I left. Steve said, ‘Sit down somewhere,’ so I found a spot on the floor in the business section of the store. I am so glad he told me to sit down – and so glad I could celebrate with my writing friends right away!”
Parsley isn’t exactly sure what her next book will be, though she said that she has “a couple of ideas that are simmering, and I do know we haven’t seen the last of Magnolia.” For now, she’s savoring her whirlwind book deal and the fact that she shares a publishing home with one of her favorite picture book creators, Jerry Pinkney. “I remember my mother picking out his books for me at the library,” she said. “His work is incredible, and I am so excited at the thought that my books may even be on the same shelf as his one day. It’s amazing to think that the same people who work on his books see the potential in mine.”